The trinity of nonprofit sector: Time to revisit some assumptions?

The trinity of transparency, accountability and efficiency are also at play in the world of public health. In the book Governing Global Health by Chelsea Clinton and Devi Sridhar, that I am reading now, this theme comes up time and again. They both argue that among the various organizations that they have studied in the book, including World Health Organization, Gates Foundation; WHO comes up short on transparency measures.

They point out that WHO does not have a transparency policy and also does not report to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). They do point out to the presence of some measures such as livestreaming of Executive Board meetings as example of some transparency. While no one today would question the need for transparency, the question is how can people use it?  But does having more transparency really make all the difference? The assumption behind calling for more transparency is that it will enhance participation, questioning from all stakeholders and make the process more equitable. But what of the converse situation, where there may be more procedural transparency, but no substantive transparency; in that there is no actual recourse to using this information to correcting the perceived wrongs? This is an aspect that hasn’t been discussed in much depth.

Their recommendation is for the older institutions such as the WHO and World Bank to increase their stakeholder engagement and transparency to ‘regain their legitimacy and public trust.’ (p.160).

Can celebrity philanthropy be harmful?

Remember the ads in which Angelina Jolie comes out and shames the world for ignoring the plight of refugees?  Or the Bono concert for helping AIDS victims? While each of them have done incredible good in the world, there is an argument out there; and it is a fairly strong one that goes like this : Since these celebrities are part of a governing regime of capitalism that causes this poverty in the first place; they are not doing anything substantive to address/ ameliorate poverty. They are just putting a bandage over a wound that is bleeding a patient to death.

Here is a scholarly paper by one of my PhD committee members, who helped me think about this aspect when I was a Phd candidate. I was aware of some of the negative influences of celebrity culture. This whole notion of attention seeking has never appealed to me. While attention seeking for a purpose is OK, most celebrities seek attention for  the sake of attention, that has never appealed to me.

Patricia Nickel says in her paper  “modern-day parables of philanthropic celebrities powerfully govern the oppositional impulse as they impart as sense of ‘benevolence’ in the form of an individualized disposition towards well-being and entitlement.” She further argues that this ‘governing regime’ which the celebrities sanitize with their appeals to charity is itself rotten.

In another paper, she, along with another scholar Angela Eikenberry argue that “However, this discourse (of celebrity philanthropy) falsely conveys a community of individuals with access to a venue for shaping social change. Rather than providing an open, discursive space for imagination, philanthropy as it has come to be defined, disguises its own discourse in its portrayal of the mediums of consumption, profit, and media celebration as the basis for benevolent human relations.” So, the issue that is problematic is one of relying on the market to manage relationships of benevolence. The buying of a laptop to eradicate AIDS (Red’s campaign) is problematic, according to Nickel and Eikenberry. This is also problematic given the ‘end of discourse’ that they suggest is going on.

This is also to suggest that while celebrities bring up certain problems, they don’t really talk about the structural problems that caused the crisis we are in, in the first place. This is the real issue with celebrity philanthropy.

While I agree with her assessment that there is an over-reliance of market mechanism for philanthropic activities, we seem to be enveloped in the market, the world over. There seems to be little space, if any for transactions or discourses to occur outside of the market mechanism. How does one impact lives outside of the market mechanism?

There are mechanisms and tools available to reach people and meet their needs. One is to explore traditional systems of charity, for instance religious giving to one’s place of worship or charitable organizations that are faith-affiliated. My dissertation work looked at some of these possibilities.

Indeed there needs to be greater space for personal benevolence and charity to occur, but the manner and speed with which celebrity philanthropy is occurring is not without its flaws.

Are corporations going to save America?

With the recent Executive Order banning entry of people from seven Middle Eastern countries, the nation is in uproar. This order also includes refugees, who were fleeing violence and oppression in Syria, among other countries.

The fact that several companies such as Lyft and Starbucks have stepped up and spoken out against this order is heart-warming. While Lyft donated a million dollars to ACLU, Starbucks has announced that it will hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years, globally. Others such as Uber, have stood by the government’s decision – either by inaction or by remaining silent. And for this, many of their customers are punishing them.

What does this mean, fundamentally? At the surface level, it looks like a bunch of corporations standing up to the President of the US.

At a deeper level it could mean that even the President of the US cannot stop globalization. It also means that corporations are interested in keeping diversity intact, especially in a country such as the US, which was built by immigrants and refugees.

What does this signal for the future of Corporate Social Responsibility? We will have to wait and watch, as this could mean a new era of social justice issues taking forefront, rather than other forms of CSR activities being pursued.

At least for now, this is a welcome sign that some of the biggest and most influential firms will not stand by when the fundamental values of their business are threatened.  They may at least contribute to the ‘saving of America’ from forces that want to make it exclusive, mean and small.

How to measure what matters : Nonprofit management 101

The nonprofit industry is obsessed with one thing : measurement. For those who do research or are involved in actual program delivery in the nonprofit sector, this desire to ‘measure spoons’ as Alnoor Ebrahim, a Harvard University professor calls it, can translate into a variety of things. There are a great many metrics that are often considered, when evaluating if a nonprofit is doing its job. For instance, people ask if the proportion of money spent on programs versus program administration (overheads) is ‘reasonable’. There are industry norms, suggesting that if an organization spends ‘too much’ then it is wasting people’s money. We base many of these arguments on the fact that they are the ‘rational’ thing to do. In a world, where philanthropy i.e., scientific way of doing charity has overtaken all other forms, this call for rationality and scientific ways of measuring this is but natural. But the really rational or ‘substantively rational’ question should be: what should we measure. And why? What impact does this have, in the long term.

Max Weber was one of the more prominent thinkers who write largely about rationality and how it is shaping our world. This short paper offers an in-depth discussion of the different types of rationalities that Weber expounded, upon. To summarize it, he posited there being four different types of rationalities: practical, theoretical, substantive and formal.

The ‘disenchantment’ of the world that leads to greater ‘rationalities’ of the formal, practical and theoretical type are evident in the field of philanthropy, as well. By this, I mean, there is a move away from ‘feeling’ or ‘reasoning based on an other-worldly’ sense of why we do charity or philanthropy. There is a growing sense that an act is justified or carried out towards an end. As Kalberg (1980) points out, the four types of social actions: affectual, traditional, value- rational, and means-end rational action are the core traits of ‘human’ actions and are outside of historical man.

Substantitive rationality ‘directly orders action into pattern.’ In seeking this form of rationality, one asks, not “what good is there at the end of the action” but rather, “should one even carry this out” and “what good will come out of this action,” in other words, this form of thinking is based on an ethical disposition of what is right and wrong.

Coming back to our initial discussion, if one were to use a substantive rational dispositions, one might : what is being measured and why? Does what we measure matter? And if so, how?

Ebrahim warns us in his piece Let’s be realistic about measuring impact, that “ It is crucial to identify when it makes sense to measure impacts and when it might be best to stick with outputs — especially when an organization’s control over results is limited, and causality remains poorly understood.”He suggests that simply repeating the mantra that measurement matters won’t get us there. There needs to be a long-term commitment to research and collaboration.

 

As Dan Pallotta argues in his book The Uncharitable that how we measure overheads is problematic. He gives the example of two soup kitchens: Kitchen A and Kitchen B. Assuming that Kitchen A spends only 10% of their revenues on overheads and Kitchen B spends about 30%. If this were all one knew, then one would judge Kitchen B harshly, saying they are producing a lot of waste. However, if one discovers that Kitchen A offers very bad quality soup, in poor conditions, while Kitchen B produces very high quality soup, at a great environment, then our perception of the services may change. This is a classic example of using substantive rationality, in making decisions.

There is a strong argument to be made for measuring only a few things, but asking more hard-nosed questions that get to the heart of why we are measuring a thing and at what point in time of the project life-cycle. Not to do so may actually lead to bad and hasty decision making.

 

 

 

How to fix the world – Use your head or heart?

Climate change. Refugee crisis. Unemployment.  Poverty.  Think of these issues or any other countless ‘wicked’ problems and if you are reasonable, like most people; one question sounds in your head: “Do we know all the facts?”. Do we know the ‘right’ approach to fix these issues?  While the ‘facts’ are available to address and solve most of these problems, often, what triumphs in the form of policies and actions taken are based not on technocratic solutions, but value laden opinions. You think policy makers use their head all the time? Think again.

Fix-the-world-321

In a discussion with a senior administrator of a major research university, last week; I brought up this question. To my query of whether most decision makers use the ‘head’ or ‘heart’, she gave me a very interesting answer. The person ( let’s call her Ms.A) said that most of the times, she has seen less of technocratic solutions and more of normative answers. Technocracy or ‘methods’ based solutions are offered very few times and often are not the ones chosen because such solutions can only take us so far.  How does one, for instance, deal with a million people showing up on your borders – when your own country is dealing with unemployment? Do you turn these desperate people and shove them in the sea, to drown? Or do you appeal to normative and moral claims, to tackle the issue, at hand? While there are multiple perspectives at hand, and those who want to justify their decisions on technocratic basis: we are undergoing a recession, OR ‘These people don’t fit in here’ can use any combination of excuses to make the decisions that reflect their values. But ultimately, all such decisions that take place in the public domain are at the end, reflective of our normative values. Even bureaucrats don’t blindly implement laws, but rather implement them based on their own interpretation of it. Dwight Waldo, one of the greatest contemporary thinkers and scholars of Public Administration showed this, in his work.

Even when we write ‘laws’ and ‘rules’ to do things, most decisions take place in a gray area, where  idealism meets pragmatism. It is important to be aware of this, as much as this may be against or for our interests. Sometimes, bad laws get passed because they reflect the values of those who make them and at other times, good laws get made and implemented. To lay claim to a pure ‘objectivity’ in matters of public discourse and action, is foolish. Perhaps, it is the heart that triumphs, most of the time. We just need to ensure that those who make laws have theirs, in the right place.

 

Philanthropy: Where Marxism and Islam agree

Marxism can be considered the exact mirror opposite of Islamic values, when it comes to ideas of materialism. On surface, this statement seems true. While Karl Marx’s idea of society can be considered purely materialistic, and his notions of political economy deeply rooted in notions of wealth, Islam is a more egalitarian and ‘socialist’ system, as far as wealth is concerned. Also, the relationship between wealth and social relations is expounded differently in Islam and Marxism. Yet, despite these obvious differences between a totally materialist ideology and a spiritual system, there seem to be some points of intersection, as well. In the area of how both Islam and Marxism views philanthropy – and specifically, how they critique philanthropy- they both seem to converge.

philanthropy  One area where both Marxism and Islam agree on critiquing philanthropy – especially that carried out by hi-net worth donors – The Bill Gates and Warren Buffets of the world is in legitimizing their wealth. As this article points out, the Marxist critique of such wealthy donors is simple: they ask questions such as: “How did these billionaires earn their money in the first place? Why is it that they do not know what to do with their wealth while ordinary working men and women find it hard to pay their bills at the end of the month and while more than a billion people live on less than a dollar a day and 3 billion on less than 2 dollars a day?” These questions, the article argues, tell us the whole story, and offer us a big picture of what is going on, in the economic system that we live in, that makes us so rich or on the other extreme, so poor, that we don’t have enough to pay our bills. One of the contradictions in their approach is that these seemingly benevolent philanthropists actually behave just like any other capitalists – they cut costs, fire people, squeeze as much out of people, as they can – all fair, according to business practices. This means, they often don’t worry too much about the ‘welfare’ of their employees. This double-speak is what is problematic, the authors seem to suggest.

Are we to commend these rich folk, who ‘take care’ of the poor folk, or are we to question their generosity, as a fig-leaf for de-politicizing their work, as scholars Patricia Nickel and Eikenberry have argued. They argue that when public problems become private crusades, then we fail to appreciate the politics behind these issues and the inequalities of power that exist, in these scenarios. This capacity for ‘global governance,’ also implies that these philanthropists can determine ‘which lives to save and which ones to not,’ they further suggest.

Islamic critique of philanthropy (or generally of wealth) are similar, in that Islam views wealth as a ‘trust from God,’ to be used for the benefit of one’s own self and that of those around oneself.  As this article points out, the hoarding of wealth is discouraged in Islam and there are injunctions to share it, with those who are less fortunate – both in the Qur’an and the prophetic traditions (Hadith). Further, the article suggests that ‘Islam considers wealth the life-blood of a community which must be in constant circulation,’ (Qur’an 9:34-35). In fact, in my own upbringing, my mother (who was by many measures the most generous person I knew) used the analogy of wealth being like a river, it should keep flowing; lest it stagnate. The health of the water in the river is guaranteed, when it keeps flowing, my mom advised. She also lived accordingly and I don’t remember her turning down anyone who came to her for financial assistance – and there were many who came to her – quite regularly. Charity and philanthropy are seen as ways to ‘cleanse’ one’s wealth. While some scholars have argued that this can be seen as a ‘social justice,’ mechanism, others have argued that this is more of a personal injunction, on those who are well-off, rather than as a social measure of justice.

While Islam rejects the Marxist materialism, there are certainly areas of congruence, when it calls upon the wealthy to distribute their wealth. While Marxists actively distrust wealth accumulation, Islamic ideals of wealth are closer to a mercantilist attitude, of doing good, while doing well for oneself. So, to that extent, Capitalism is compatible with Islam, but not in the current speculative, Wall-Street manner.

Musings on Amtrak: Seth Meyers, Lynchburg and my travel disability

I am off to India by way of Morocco. This is a modest attempt at following one of my heroes – Ibn Battuta – a Moroccan traveler and scholar, who lived in the 14th century. Why is he my hero? for that you must watch this fascinating talk. In short, this scholar-traveler did about 73,000 kilometers on Camels and Ships– yes, you read that right, this was before the Steam engine was invented. And he lived in India for a good 12 years. I am following his footsteps, in a very modest way- though in reverse.

ibn_battuta_216

            I boarded the train to Washington D.C. this morning, from Philadelphia with three pieces of luggage, feeling a bit ‘disabled’ with my lack of ability to move freely. And yes, you guessed it right, I sat in the ‘disabled’ seats right in the front – with lots of legroom – ah, relief at last. I eyed my surroundings to make sure there weren’t another other ‘genuinely’ disabled folk. Thankfully there weren’t any. I did a double-take to make sure I wasn’t breaking rules. I hate breaking rules, when there is no need. If there is a genuine need, and I feel morally obliged to- I break them- with impunity. Nelson Mandela did, so did Gandhi. So, I must be in good company. Anyway I sat down, feeling a bit self-assured.

            A few minutes later, the moral inspector in me started poking me to get up and move back. ‘What if there are three disabled people at the next station’ said the little voice in my head. As I often do, I moved back. Just two seats behind. I couldn’t lift the heavy luggage I had to put it overhead, so just put it on the next seat and sat down, looking out of the window and thinking about my upcoming adventures. Not as frightful and risky as undertaken by Mr. Battuta, but exciting, nevertheless.

            The conductor came. He saw that I had placed my bag on the next seat and asked me to put it on top or ‘move to the front’ i.e., to the disabled seats. Bummer, I told him I couldn’t lift it easily so he asked me to move. So I did. Back to square one. My instincts were right. I was happy to be back to my former location. I should’ve let my initial inertia guide me. Anyway. Nothing lost. In the meanwhile, an older black lady was sitting on the adjacent seats – an Iraq war veteran, who had all sorts of paraphernalia on her. She seemed to want to take a nap, so I did not intrude her. Under normal circumstances, I would have at least said hello and made small talk. She seemed to be an older lady – about 60 or so, and came on a wheelchair, that was sitting right in front of her. The little voice in my head asked me ‘How will she get off’? Will she call the conductor, or do I need to help her get off? Also, how is it to travel as a disabled person? If just three pieces of luggage are making me so ‘disabled’ how the hell to really disabled people manage to get around? Tough luck indeed. God bless the disabled. And the veterans.

            I flipped open the Acela travel magazine with a Seth Meyers photo on the cover – sharp, well dressed, in all blue. I love blue- one of my favorite colors – so I went straight to the cover story on Mr.Meyers. I read with interest how he came to be the person he is. His ‘authenticity’ seems to be the ‘secret’ behind his humor. I suppose it is for most great comedians – Ali G, Charlie Chaplin and Muhammad Ali – though Ali was more of a boxer than a comedian. But I rank him highly as a comedian – more than others would. But that is me.Sorry to be so opinionated. I have been this was since I was four years old. My (late) mom told me so. As I am growing older, Iam trying to be less so, and be more open to other ideas. But I suppose we are all created a certain way. And we must live with who we are. I am trying my best to live with myself. Sometimes it can be hard, for the most part, I am an ok guy. Nice enough to others, but not to myself. I need to learn to be nice to myself. Take my luggage situation for instance.

            My current ‘luggage disability’ owes to a favor I am doing for a friend – whose 16 yr old son requested me to buy a certain electronic equipment – which I agreed to, without knowing how bulky it would be. My heart sank when the shipment came. I didn’t imagine I would have to lug this monstrosity all the way thousands of miles. Along with my luggage. Beat that. Being nice can be a bit hard at times and with my penchant for traveling light, this is the worst thing that could happen. But what to do, I have promised a 16 yr old kid – who I have never met – a gift and I have to keep up my word. So, here I am sitting, with three pieces of luggage, instead of two and feeling sort of sorry for myself. Perhaps I should stop moaning and get on with it. Like a true traveler.

                        I have also noticed that I suddenly become philosophical when I travel. My reservoir of profoundness seems to burst forth when I am on the move. Is it just me, or does it happen with others too? I need to ask a few dear friends about this- only if I remember to. Made a note of that in my journal. One thought that came to me is a hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad) that life should be lived as if we are travelers – in the sense that we are passing through life – and not getting too attached to people or places. I have tried to incorporate some of this in my life, but I guess attachment is a human weakness. Hard to completely be detached – as most religions in the world teach us – Hinduism has a very strong element of this detachment philosophy too. ‘World rejection’ is the word that Sociologists of religion use to describe this phenomenon.

            I flipped through my phone and noticed on Twitter that Anthony Bourdain said something thoughtful about the ongoing ‘War’ on Gaza. More like Israeli assault on the folk there. Four kids were killed, while playing on the beach and Israeli President Shimon Peres apologized this morning for this. What about the other 200 odd deaths? They were all ‘collateral damage’ I suppose. I am growing sick of the media coverage, the hatred and venom from people on social media. And the valiant efforts of some people trying to post pictures of Jews and Muslims hugging are also somewhat disingenuous. This is NOT a religious conflict, except that some ultra-orthodox Jews are making it a zero-sum game by insisting that God gave the land to them. I think this is about land – and should be viewed as such- and as good intentioned as these efforts are at showing that Jews and Muslims can break bread (and fasts) together, they don’t help much. They only dumb down the arguments and make the reader look stupid. But I guess in America one needs this level of discourse too. Most Americans can’t place Palestine/Israel on a map.

            Finally, there was an ad for Lynchburg, Virginia – a town close to where I live. Why doesn’t Lynchburg change its name? to something live Loveburg or something. I mean, the term ‘lynching’ apparently came after the practice of lynching that took place in the town – many ages ago- wouldn’t that be a good case for re-branding a town’s name? If that isn’t a good reason, I don’t know what is.

And yes, like Ibn Battuta, I intended to stop by Mecca for Umrah, but unfortunately that will have to wait. I need a visa, unlike Mr.Battuta, who traveled within the Islamic empire of his day, sans passport, visa or the hassles of security checks. In some ways we surely seem to have regressed, as a species. Freedom of movement is restricted these days. So is the freedom to really think for oneself. It takes a great effort and courage to speak one’s mind it seems. Too much censorship, self-censorship around us going on. Are we really free, as we imagine? Free to travel, think and live? As a former PR man, I am suspicious of all the branding and advertising of this ‘freedom’ we speak of. More on this later.